Part road-trip comedy and part social science experiment, a scientist and a journalist “shed fascinating light on what makes us laugh and why” (New York Post).
Two guys. Nineteen experiments. Five continents. 91,000 miles. The Humor Code follows the madcap adventures and oddball experiments of Professor Peter McGraw and writer Joel Warner as they discover the secret behind what makes things funny. In their search, they interview countless comics, from Doug Stanhope to Louis CK and travel across the globe from Norway to New York, from Palestine to the Amazon. It’s an epic quest, both brainy and harebrained, that culminates at the world’s largest comedy festival where the pair put their hard-earned knowledge to the test.
For the first time, they have established a comprehensive theory that answers the question “what makes things funny?” Based on original research from the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the pair’s experiences across the globe, The Humor Code explains the secret behind winning the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, why some dead baby jokes are funnier than others, and whether laughter really is the best medicine.
Hilarious, surprising, and sometimes even touching, The Humor Code “lays out a convincing theory about how humor works, and why it’s an essential survival mechanism” (Mother Jones).
The iffy field of humorology is fitfully illuminated in this gonzo pop-science expedition. Journalist Warren and psychology professor McGraw, director of the University of Colorado's Humor Research Lab, investigate the sketchy research on what makes people laugh, focusing on McGraw's "benign violation theory," which posits that off-kilter, unsettling or threatening situations turn funny when somehow tweaked to seem unserious. (Ultrasonic rat squeaks and great apes' panting, they speculate, are laughter precursors that signal friendly rough-housing.) It's an engaging conceit if not quite a breakthrough McGraw applies it to crafting a mediocre stand-up routine but the book's heart is the author's globetrotting pursuit of humor-themed figures and phenomena: the New Yorker cartoon caption contest; boozy ad-men trying to think up droll taglines; inscrutable Japanese comic monologues; African mass laughter epidemics. There's not much rigorous science in these unfocused junkets, and not always much humor; visits to prophet-profaning Scandinavian cartoonists under lock-down, West Bank sketch-comedy shows, and clown parades through miserable Peruvian slums mainly demonstrate that many of the world's problems can't be easily laughed off. Writing in the Freakonomics vein of colorful social sciences reportage, McGraw and Warren proffer much vivid and amusing picaresque in their setup, but the scientific punch line carries little weight.